On the third day of school, everything kinda stalled.
My 9th grade English class and I had plugging along quite nicely the first two days, and that day was no different. Then it happened: I asked a tough question about the story we’d just read.
No hands went up. Silence.
Nothing new to a teacher. We’re used to that awkwardly long silence when we ask a question to the class. “Think time,” right?
After enough “think time,” I tried my first trick: “I won’t call an anyone until I see five hands.” Usually that works, and a hand or two will shoot up, confident that I won’t call on them right away.
No dice. Continued silence and no hands. I tried a few more tricks: jot down your answer (which they did) and share what you wrote (nope, lips were sealed). I reworded the question at a lower level of abstraction. Nada. Zip. Not defiance, just silence. Before long, my toolbox was empty. I refused, though, to just give the answer to them and move on.
My 2nd period class is a quiet but wonderful group. The high school I now teach in is a smaller school-of-choice in our district. There is but one hallway, a more intimate environment, and the students we serve choose our school for a variety of reasons. For some, they are re-entering public schools from other institutions. Some are in Running Start at the local community college and need a flexible home base. Others face struggles with anxiety, depression, or other personal or family challenges. Still others are like any prototypical teen, but for whatever reason found the smaller environment a better “fit” than the other high school (where I used to work), which has about two thousand* more students than we do.
So instead of waiting out the silence, I asked them this: “When a teacher asks you a question, and you raise your hand, what are you communicating?”
That we know the answer, a student replied (without raising her hand, it is worth noting).
“Then what does it mean when you don’t raise your hand and you stay quiet? What does that communicate to the teacher?”
That we don’t know, a different student replied. No, another interjected, It’s that we don’t want to say the answer. Sometimes I know the answer but don’t want to be called on.
“Makes sense,” I agreed. A hand finally went up, and the young man attached to it said Besides, if we wait long enough, most teachers just tell us the answer anyway and move on.
So I tried this: “Okay, I’m going to ask you all the same question. I want anyone who thinks they might have a response, whether right or wrong, to raise their hands. I promise I will not call on anyone.” I asked the question again, and this time about three-quarters of the students raised their hands.
“So all of you think you have an idea that responds to my question?” I made eye contact with kid after kid, who nodded.
“But sometimes you don’t want to say it?” More nods.
“Alright then… keep your hand up if you are willing to share your answer.” A few hands went down, one by one, but most stayed up…including several students who had yet to speak up at all in class….and by far more that who raised hands the first time I asked the question (if you recall, the number of hands that went up that time was exactly zero).
A new, simple routine was born.
The act of raising your hand as a student in my class no longer means I want to be called on. Now it is a signal: I think I might have an answer. Now instead of asking for answers, I say “show me your hands…” after I ask a question. Then, I say “keep your hands up to share.”
Since adopting this little change, I consistently have more (and different) students keeping their hands up, bringing more voices in to the room than just the ones who have the confidence to throw that hand in the air, end the awkward silence, and give the answer so the rest of us can move on. No longer is the Q-and-A about “getting through it.” Less and less do I sense that students are afraid to make their voices heard.
Later, with a smaller group of kids, we talked about how schools condition students to give right answers. They each talked about how, through their whole academic lives, they’d sat in classes where they were truly listening and learning, but were afraid to risk raising their hand and having the teacher say as they pivot away “no, not quite, does anyone else know the answer?” as the wrong-answer-student is left to stew in embarassment.
I know, maybe they’re just raising their hands…how can I really know whether they are playing the game or actually have an idea in their minds? I’d rather know they’re engaged enough to play the game, even if that’s all they’re doing…something that certainly wasn’t happening when the same three kids were the only ones raising their hands to answer questions while the others just waited us out, watching the clock.
For me the proof of this practice is in the fact that kids who I don’t usually hear from are keeping their hands up and giving us insight that before now they had been reticent to risk sharing.
*Not an exaggeration.